The profile picture on his website, shows the bestselling American author, now 72, wearing black leather jacket and a hair style of which a youthful John Travolta would have been proud. Yet when T.C. Boyle talks with us from his home in Montecito, California, he is refreshingly unaffected, explaining with earnest appeal what his most recent book, Talk to Me, is all about. A guest of Border Kitchens here in Holland, his book is now available in Dutch.
Described as ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘hilarious’, Talk to Me, explores the world of animal intelligence and interspecies relationships through focus on a young ape, named Sam. Boyle explains that the idea for the book came from one of his first novels, The Scent of Man. It draws on a similar narrative that explores the dynamics between a researcher, his female assistant and ‘a very clever chimp’ who they are training in human tasks. Talk to Me involves an interspecies love triangle but is ‘less whimsical’ than its predecessor explains Boyle. Who describes his latest novel as, ‘a book that will tear your heart out’.
Based on in-depth research into animal behaviour, particularly that of apes and their similarities to human beings, the book ‘talks to people who have animals in their lives’ and Boyle credits its immediate popularity to this fact. He admits that our relationship with animals has always been a source of fascination for him. A wider concern with the natural world and environmental issues has informed most of his work. Boyle tells us that his next book, Blue Skies, is inspired by a previous novel, A Friend of the Earth, a story of environmental destruction resulting from global warming and the greenhouse effect. Written in 2000 it is set in 2025.
Talk to Me follows the story of Sam, a young chimpanzee who is taken to be trained and treated as a young human by research assistant, Aimee Villard. Research suggests that chimpanzees have the intelligence levels of an average three year old child. This means that, in theory, they should be capable of speaking, making simple jokes and many other things that we expect of a three year old. However, these animals are often abandoned once research is complete and used for breeding programmes in zoos or even animal experimentation.
The novel covers the full spectrum of Sam’s experiences – treated for a time like a much-loved child and then as an animal bred purely for experimental purposes. The book explores the tragic fate of what Boyle describes as ‘these human-raised chimps’. ‘The casual cruelty toward these animals touched me very deeply’ he explains. Through its exploration of animal consciousness, the novel raises existential questions such as; Can we really communicate with animals? Do they have souls? And what does consciousness mean for them?
The narrative toggles between human and chimp perspective. Boyle admits that finding Sam’s voice was one of the most challenging parts of writing the novel. Drawing on a technique used by famous American modernist, William Faulkner, the narrative switches between Sam’s direct, highly simplistic thoughts communicated in single words or phrases and that of a more sophisticated omniscient narrator who comments on these thoughts. The result is surprisingly effective. ‘Even though it’s fictional, it needs to be credible’ Boyle explains.
Author of twenty-eight books, Boyle emphasises the central role that rhythm plays in his choice of language. He always writes accompanied by music, usually classical, sometimes jazz and loves to read his work out loud, usually to his wife, in order to properly feel the rhythm of the language. ‘It’s like hearing a song – I want it to sing to me.’ A prolific writer and story-teller, Boyle will no doubt continue to make his words sing for his readers in years to come. Souwie Buis 15th April 2021
Photo: Jamieson Fry